Surface Architects is experimenting with a complex matrix of eight shifting "sensory layers" for the offices of a cutting-edge software firm.
Youngblood architect Richard Scott HAS designed a modernist office conversion that turns the creed of form following function on its head. Not that form and function have been ignored, but Scott and his two-year-old practice, Surface Architects, treat them as only two of eight equally important design considerations. The other six are materials, finishes, sound, light, colour and the existing building or, more precisely, the sensory effects of these physical elements.

"We want to break down the modernist linear design process," explains Scott. "Instead, we project a series of sensory layers that coexist in space. Each layer is treated discretely so that it has its own autonomous language, and when overlaid they generate many unforeseen relationships." Each of these eight sensory layers has been designed separately by a different architect within the practice.

Scott's outré design experiment is not just some dream project concocted in his spare bedroom. It is a real scheme worth £2.5m to convert a disused brewery just north of the City to house the 500 staff of American software firm Razorfish, and is due to start on site next spring. The other design consultants are established – although no less radical – firms that include structural engineer Adams Kara Taylor and services engineer Atelier Ten. Razorfish selected Surface Architects last August through an invited design competition. "We knew they were looking for a radical approach," says Scott, "so we went in strong playing the radical ticket."

Surface Architects' competition entry was a CD-ROM presentation, combining abstract paintings, music, stream-of-consciousness speech and animated CAD visuals. In the presentation, the architect characterised the software firm as: "A part-physical, part-virtual entity … riding the cusp of the digital revolution … where conventions and orthodoxies are turned upside down." Scott adds: "Razorfish is a fluid, experimental, open-ended company, and this is expressed in our design." How, then, does Scott's theory of shifting sensory layers work in practice when applied to an old brewery building in Clerkenwell? Admittedly, initial ideas such as a plunge pool "descending like a stalactite through the boardroom" have been dropped. But the detailed design currently includes three raking shafts that bring daylight, rainwater and external sounds into the heart of the building. Likewise, large holes will be "gouged out" of the facades. Where new layers are inserted as floors, walls and ceilings, these connect up to form internal "wrappers".

"There will a dynamic between the synthetic newness of the interventions and the existing quality of the building," says Scott.